Over the next series of posts I will offer some actionable advice for BIBL readers who want to work in BigLaw.
To kick off the “How to Get a BigLaw Job” series, I recently sat down with a friend who is a litigation partner and oversees lawyer hiring in the office of large law firm [note: not the firm where I used to work]. Below are the partner’s thoughts on her path to BigLaw and some advice for BIBL readers:
A nontraditional background. I am a litigation partner at a large international law firm where traditionally most lawyers graduated from a top ten law school. This has changed over the years. And it is certainly not my story. I graduated from a law school that has a good reputation regionally, but is nowhere near the top in the rankings. My law school offers a variety of programs for nontraditional students, such as a part-time evening program that caters to students who work during the day. That was me. I had already worked for ten years before enrolling in law school. I was a somewhat older law student. I was also the first in my family to attend college and law school.
Stubborn when told “No.” I didn’t enter law school with the goal of working at a large law firm. But I was enticed by the money. There was no better starting salary for entry-level lawyers than a BigLaw starting salary. (I think that holds true today.) The money was beyond anything I had ever made. Before law school I worked in sales and customer service. During law school I worked at the school in the fundraising office. Getting a job in a large law firm became my goal because everybody told me it would be difficult if not impossible for me to get hired coming from a lower ranked school. I set out to prove the naysayers wrong. Looking back now I know that my initial motivations were unsound. I was stubborn, but for the wrong reasons.
Persistent but unprepared. I didn’t know how to properly evaluate law firms or even what I really wanted from a law firm job. I just knew I wanted to achieve what everyone told me was impossible, so I went at it with a bulldozer mentality. I made lists of all the law firms in areas where I wanted to live and work and I contacted lawyers who worked at those law firms and asked them to meet with me. I did not care if people didn’t call or email me back. I was relentless. Through that process, I was able to meet many attorneys and even get interviews at firms that had never hired any students from my law school. But despite all these efforts, once I would get in the door at these firms for an interview, I had a hard time being myself because I didn’t have a clear sense of the place I was interviewing at or what I wanted from a job there. So I put on a show, and it was awkward.
The awkward interviewee. I was in the top 20% of my class but I certainly was not one of the top students. I was so nervous in those initial interviews. I would fidget, have trouble making eye contact, and respond to questions with canned answers. I had no focus and I didn’t really know what was driving me. So it makes sense that I did not get any further than the interview at those firms. I felt pretty helpless and hopeless about it for several weeks and then I just decided to recommit myself to what I was doing in school and at work and have faith that something would work out for me.
Not just networking. Working in the law school fundraising office, I connected with several successful alumni of my law school, as I was the primary contact person between the school and the alumni lawyers. I connected and built relationships with the lawyers and with their secretaries. I worked really hard to build relationships with these staff and became close with one person in particular who was the secretary to an influential partner (now retired) at my law firm. At about the time I was doing all my interviews with firms, and striking out, my friend was promoted to the firm’s recruiting office. My friend knew about my struggle to try to find a job and was sympathetic. Several weeks went by and then my friend learned that there would be summer associate openings at the firm because they had undershot their summer hiring. Before the firm took steps to publicly advertise these positions, my friend pushed my resume around and recommended me as someone they should look at. More time went by and then they brought me in. I was hired on the spot at the end of a long day where I met and clicked with several associates and partners at the firm.
You make your own opportunities. People at my law school marveled about how “lucky” I was. But it wasn’t all luck. I had a genuine relationship with the person who pushed me for the opportunity. This person had seen me in action in my role working at the law school fundraising office and knew that I could accomplish tasks creatively and efficiently, even difficult tasks like raising money for school projects that touched on controversial issues. Also, because I had been through so many interviewing experiences, I had honed my interviewing skills so that when I was interviewing for the job I really wanted I was a lot more comfortable talking to people. I had learned how to have a conversation that was authentic and sincere.
Some advice. As a lawyer, a recruiter for my firm, and a manager of other lawyers, I have learned that you need to commit yourself 100% to every experience. This requires discipline and focus. It is necessary even if you don’t know what you are doing or why you are doing it. For law students who are interviewing for jobs, this may seem counter-intuitive. Especially the idea that you should commit yourself to having the best possible interview experience even if you are interviewing for a job you don’t really want. But if you approach your job hunt this way, you will gain something from every experience and it will make you that much stronger of a candidate when you are in the interview with the law firm where you really do want to work.
The competition is fierce. Law students operate under the misimpression that if they look really good on paper, have the best grades, the best extracurriculars, the best school, etc, that this will be enough to get hired at a law firm. But the qualities of a strong candidate are above and beyond those things. I think boiled down it is the ability to be comfortable in your skin coupled with the ability to forge a sincere connection with other people, even under stressful circumstances. You gain this skill with practice.